So where do you get your ideas from? This is the question most guaranteed to set a dedicated author's eyes rolling. I mean, duh, creative people pluck them out of everywhere, don't you know: the aether, their hair, their arses, their dreams, the TV, the headlines, other people's work. Ideas are, after all, the easy part of fiction. It's how you parse and render them that makes a difference, yeah?
Actually, I'm starting to think it’s a very good question. If ideas are so plush and plentiful, how come there's so much tedious fiction out there? Why are slush piles choking with the same old, same old? It can't be because people can't write – everybody writes these days. Everybody blogs, word-processes, chats, emails, texts. Everybody has all the tools they need to be a writer and getting published is about as difficult as falling off a log so long as you're not too fussed about a publication's provenance, credentials and readership.
We've all heard that old adage 'write what you know'. Well, that's a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you're just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren't that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don't know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.
Which is pretty much what the last three years have been all about for me. Not intentionally, mind you. There was never a cunning plan aimed at improving the quality of my prose. I didn't perceive great gaps in my imagination. I just knew what I knew, wrote what I wrote, dug what I dug, etc. Some of my output was deemed worthy of publication, but I wouldn't have said there was anything special about any of it.
And then I changed jobs. I found myself working for a small educational publisher, producing eighteen books a year on an assortment of health and social justice topics. Eighteen serves of research and production: lather, rinse, repeat. Going over and over the text in preparation for publication, the intel contained rattling around in the backroom of my psyche, groaning and churning away like a big old machine. Things I thought I knew, things I know I'd rather forget. Multiple versions of the same stories, source documents, white papers, green papers, opinions and statistics. Sites, both reputable and outré, trawled for content, the duds, mutants and miscreants briefly squeezed, then tossed back over the side. Ten years as a media monitor never educated me quite like this because electronic media morphs into one almighty jabbering voice. These books feature many and multiple mouthpieces. Headlines are advertisements. They're selling something, be it gossip, news or a state of mind. Behind the headline is where the trail often begins.
The internet is a vast and plentiful ocean resplendent with tall ships and betentacled horrors. Search terms fed through Google Advanced bring up many a seceded realm ruled by Pirate Kings and Voudoun priestesses; buried treasure nestled amongst Commonwealth fact-sheets and intergovernmental reports. There is no gatekeeper because there is no gate. Only peepholes, millions of them peering inwards at the boiling tide. Oh my god, it's full of stars is right, my friend. I challenge you not to find something worth writing about in there.
When I look at a timeline of my own published work, I see a distinct correlation between the point at which my stories took a turn for the interesting and the date I began my day job. It's a linear timeline, so perhaps it could be argued that my writing simply improved with practise. I, however, see more than coincidence. The press I work for publishes dark titles: Juvenile Crime, Indigenous Disadvantage, Child Poverty, Consumerism, Resilience and Coping Skills, Natural Disasters, Amphetamine Use, etc. We did a book on Happiness and Life Satisfaction once. Couldn't sell it. Nobody wants to know about the good stuff.
All this murk has been seeping into my head. The food I eat is farmed with suffering, my clothes manufactured in sweatshops, my chocolate harvested by child slaves; I wipe my arse on old growth forests; I eat the dead flesh of tortured and mistreated animals. My lifestyle is unsustainable, my carbon footprint the size of a Yeti's. Indigenous countrymen live in third world poverty; Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be murdered than myself. Forty-five per cent of Australia's 100,000 homeless are children. Yeah yeah, you're thinking, I know about all of this. I read it in the paper and heard it on the news. But do you feel it? Does it change you? Does it all stay embedded in your head? Each time you learn one of these facts, do you attempt to adjust your life accordingly in a pathetic and pointless attempt to make it better? Do these issues coagulate and ferment? Does anything become of them, or do they pass undigested through your memory like intellectual psyllum husks? Do you now write dark fantasy and horror when once you wrote about… stuff? 'Cos I do.
Something to think about, maybe.
Comics: Dave Gibbons at the Lightbox this week
10 hours ago